While cloud computing is seen as a way to cut IT costs, the linings around Amazon, Linode, Rackspace and other providers aren’t always silver. With each added feature, each cloud becomes more proprietary, which in turn adds to the price of egress from that cloud. But that’s not the only form of lock-in, according to a new non-profit group that’s pushing for open cloud standards.

The Open Cloud Initiative (OCI) has only been publicly talking about its goals since July, but the group already has a clear vision for what it wants to become, said Sam Ramji, a member of the OCI’s board. He said the OCI isn’t specifically about standards, however.

“I think a better way to describe what we’re articulating is a set of principles. Our principles include the fact that standards matter, but more specifically it’s going to be standardization without any kind of prejudice toward implementation. We’re very much motivated by the model of the Open Source Initiative,” he said.

More specifically, Ramji said the group wants to mimic the Open Source Initiative (OSI), or, rather, to avoid the same things the OSI avoided. “What the OSI didn’t do was say, ‘This is the license.’ They instead said, ‘What are the software freedoms we feel are important?’ ” he said.

“They laid out a 10-point open-source definition. They acted as a maintainer of those principles, and that enabled the community to apply the principles to their licenses. The Apache license meets those definitions, for example.”

Thus, the OCI has been trying to define those principles for a year now, gathering information by polling users of cloud-hosting services. The initial proposed principles have been open for comment, and the OCI is currently reviewing those comments and preparing the final wording list. Once that’s complete, the OCI will measure hosting providers against these principles.

In the initial comments, one of the things the community has been concerned about is the rise of platform-as-a-service.

“We’re most concerned about things like Amazon’s OpenStack implementation,” said Ramji. “We’re starting to see even more PaaS offerings now, and if those things prevent the software applications these developers are writing from leaving their platform, then they’re unsafe at any speed. We’re concerned about infrastructure-as-a-service and PaaS offerings that treat your data like a roach motel.”

Danger lurks in latency, too
But the intricacies of the various cloud providers are not the only type of vendor lock-in, said Ramji. There’s also the tyranny of latency, the lock-in that comes from slow interchange between hosting providers, he said. He added that the two initial voices warning against latency-based lock-in may soon be bolstered by the OCI, provided it is able to articulate proper remedies for cross-cloud latency.

What is the tyranny of latency? Simply put, said Carlos Bueno, software engineer for Facebook, it’s the inherent latency between clouds. Thus, if you wanted to put your database in Amazon’s EC2 and your application in Rackspace’s cloud, the latency between the two data centers would be prohibitive to most requirements.

And that’s not the only problem with latency. Bueno said that moving data out of one cloud and into a mirror setup in another cloud would net charges for both data ingress and egress, ensuring a big bill for any companies setting up redundant application instances across multiple cloud providers.

Tom Hughes-Croucher, chief evangelist for Joyent, and Bueno have been addressing just this problem via a talk they put together on the topic. Trouble is, said Bueno, their message is not reaching many people.

“I think this is a five-year problem,” he said. “Infrastructure takes five years to change, so we were trying to warn people early.”

Bueno suggested the use of cloud-host peering, similar to what the big telecom firms do for voice and data traffic.

“It would be really nice to be able to run one data center for yourself on the West Coast from Amazon, and one on the East Coast from Linode,” he said. “That would mean not only the front end, but also the replication of your data. You can do it now, but you’ll get charged for outbound traffic from one, and inbound from the other.”

He added that cloud providers with multiple data centers, such as Amazon, Rackspace and Terremark, already have their own inter-network peering installations. This allows Amazon to move applications from North America to Europe quickly and easily, and he suggested such a system for cloud providers.

“You don’t have to use multiple vendors at once. That’s just silly, right?” said Bueno. “Use one and switch when you need to. But interoperability is a habit, not a feature. If you have never moved all of your operations to another cloud, you simply don’t know how hard or easy it is. The last time you want to find out is during an outage when everyone else is also trying to reserve computers on the competition’s cloud.”

And considering Amazon’s cloud went down on April 21, 2011, the idea of hosting your cloud-based applications across multiple providers may not seem so silly anymore.

OCI’s principles
• Interoperability
• Avoiding barriers to entry or exit
• Technological neutrality
• Forbidding discrimination
• Open standards for formats and interfaces